CHAPTER TWO: PACIFIC RIM RACING
I slept briefly, then awakened to ponder the day’s most intriguing question: who
was Hiromoro? I wondered whether he was a veteran, perhaps someone who had
left the sport. Someone whose throttle cadence I had forgotten.
An aging lion seeking a comeback? The veterans usually attempt at least one;
what we journalists describe as a “curtain call.” The drivers leave for a year and
they miss the adulation. The global attention they receive in Formula One is akin
to a powerful drug. Without it, the drivers experience withdrawal. They mope
around the house, curse the television and their own sudden anonymity, and seek
excuses to be seen again trackside.
Many retired drivers return primarily for the money. Or the women. But to a
man, they also seek the thrill of competition at the highest level; something in their
genetic makeup thrives on motorsport’s narcotic-like rush and cannot live happily
without it. That thirst for life-threatening competition distinguishes Formula One
drivers from virtually everyone else in the world. The rest of us don’t need to risk
horrible disfigurement and death several Sundays per year and on innumerable
testing days to achieve inner peace. They do.
The veterans therefore let it be known that they are “available.” The speech is
made to a reporter, who is likely to quote anyone who is newsworthy, or to a
columnist such as myself, who definitely will. The veterans’ words vary from one
driver to the next, but the theme is the same: “I was great, but these overpaid
young Turks are mere boy-racer dilettantes; they have the driving skills of a
toddler, the instincts of a cracker, and the testicles of a mouse.”
The goal of the speech is to attract the attention of a team owner who is
dissatisfied with one of his drivers. If that happens, the owner schedules a testing
session. If the veteran proves that he is still on pace, which means that he is within
approximately one second per lap of the quickest drivers, he might receive a one
or two race contract.
But most veterans fail the test. Having been away from the sport and from the
constant testing and comprehensive fitness training, their reflexes lose sharpness.
During their time away, the drivers have occasion to reflect upon F1’s extreme
dangerousness. Upon their return, their thirst to find the edge of a car’s
performance capabilities is not as pronounced as when they were younger and
less contemplative. This lack of total commitment to find the limits of a racecar’s
performance translates into the loss of precious slivers of a second.
The drivers’ brief return to the cockpit bruises their monumental egos and so
the blokes cast about for something convenient and reasonably neutral to blame,
which usually means the racecar. They call it a truck, or a lorry, or a biscuit box on
wheels, and then they go home, their curiosity satisfied.
The drivers with class will say they were flattered to have been invited to test
the racecar, but their other business interests prevent them from taking an active
part in the team’s racing program. The comments are spoken politely and in code;
what the drivers mean is, because they no longer are on pace, they look forward
to returning to their yachts or to the golf course.
But, save for the cadence of the engine warm-up, the driver’s style that I
witnessed on the video did not appear to be that of a veteran. There would have
been more warm-up laps to ensure the racecar was properly sorted. The car
would have wobbled while emerging from the sharp corners, followed by the
driver's inducing opposite steering lock to demonstrate that he still sought the
edge. This hotshoe was different -- a disciple of the classicist school, which meant
that he adhered strictly to the optimum racing line. He was not a late-braker like
the flamboyant drivers of the 1970s, nor an early one like Jim Clark, the world’s
quickest driver for much of the 1960s.
A veteran would have lifted his visor when he returned to the pit wall following
the first hot lap. On a warm summer afternoon, he would have asked for a cold
drink. There would have been more handshakes and fewer high-fives.
No, this was a rookie; that was my bet.
An ungodly fast rookie.
CIRCUS BEFORE DAWN